November 21, 2008

I wasn't eating granola
I was looking for smoke

Jack Tworkow, Figure, 1954

* Peter Holsapple: The Anatomy of a Flop.

"It’s such an honor to be writing here among the likes of (to name but two) Rosanne Cash and Suzanne Vega: songwriters I’ve admired for years. Their entries in this blog are some fine writing — not surprising, considering the high level of their songwriting. They have Grammy awards and platinum records between them. Who wouldn’t be thrilled to be in such company?

"So . . . what’s my deal? I have never had a hit in my life.

"Once upon a time, though, I think I wrote a hit. It was called 'Love is for Lovers' and the dB’s recorded it for an album called 'Like This' in 1984. It had (and has, I believe) an undeniable hook, the kind you’d find yourself singing in the shower or pounding along to on your steering wheel while driving. The performance, produced by Chris Butler at the old Bearsville Studio in upstate New York, has all the power of the best kind of rock: slamming drums, inventive bass, a solid riff and a fantastic solo.

"Of course, as usual, the glaring problematic element of the equation is the vocals provided by yours truly. I tried, God knows, and it sounds almost all right, but if there’s a weak spot in 'Love is for Lovers,' it would be the singing.

"I wrote the song a couple years before the band got ahold of it. I’m pretty sure that the chord sequence came first, and then I applied some makeshift sentiment to it, to give the singer something to do. The singer at the time was a girl I was dating who wanted to be a rock star really badly, and she and I did a demo of it, presented in part for the first time here.

"At that point, the song was called 'Do You Believe This' and had a bunch of the elements that later showed up in the dB’s version. But that original demo was recorded in our practice space at the Music Building, on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, using someone’s Boss Dr. Rhythm DR110 pumped through an ancient Roland keyboard (thus allowing me to do my usual compound tracking). As you can hear, it’s a pretty diddy-boppy kind of sound. My then-girlfriend’s recording career was certainly not furthered by this demo, but it gave me some idea of what the song was supposed to become later on.

"Chris Stamey, who had started and led the band from its inception in 1978, had recently left our ranks, after two albums. It was an amicable and gracious parting of the ways, but it left the band drifting and rudderless. The remaining trio of Will Rigby, Gene Holder (who was switching to lead guitar from bass) and me knew that we wanted to continue making music together; but I wasn’t a natural leader like Chris, and that’s what we lacked. I could write an album’s worth of songs and sing them serviceably, and play guitar and mandolin, but I had neither business sense nor type-A chieftain qualities.

"Nevertheless, we rehearsed and recorded demos, which our then-manager shopped dutifully to all the major labels in New York. Most turned him down, being fairly aware of the dB’s notorious reputation for imprecise performances and overspending in the studio. We did have one nibble, provided to us by Karin Berg at Warner Bros. by way of softening her turning us down: a potential offer to use the Warner machine for distribution and promotion.

"The dB’s in Woodstock. (Phil Marino)We took this song up to Woodstock, to Bearsville Records, the label owned by former Dylan/Joplin manager and gray eminence Albert Grossman (who also owned the Bearsville studios). I’d loved Bearsville’s output over the years, since it was distributed by Ampex: Todd Rundgren, flagship Bearsville solo artist and what amounted to house producer for the label, was a huge influence on Will and me as teenagers, and I’d even sewed the Bearsville logo onto my book bag when I was sick at home with mononucleosis in the 10th grade.

"With us came noted songwriter and producer Chris Butler (Tin Huey, the Waitresses), who was to produce our album. I thought Chris was an inspired choice; the wry “Christmas Wrapping,” by the Waitresses, never failed to reduce me to a blubbering simp around the holidays, and I felt that was a good sign he might be a fine match for the difficult and petulant know-it-alls the dB’s could be. He was smart and funny, and we got along splendidly. Chris put us through our paces for a couple weeks of rehearsal and revision at the Music Building, some of the most focused time the group ever spent together.

"Chris Butler: 'In the drive to our digs on Albert’s compound, I gushed about to Albert how hard the band had worked in pre-production: how we had taken Peter’s great songs and worked them and re-worked them, and how we were going to make a great record and how grateful everyone was to get the chance to record in a world-class studio. After listening to me silently for a while, he stopped me mid-sentence and said in a rather nasal baritone, ‘Chris…all I am interested in these days are restaurants and wood.’ It was going to be a long autumn.'

"We picked three songs to record, with 'Love is for Lovers' being the ace in the hole, in our estimation. Studio B was our home for several days, and we’d hauled all our gear (and a lot of Butler’s as well) into the small room. (Studio A was a great cavern down the hall, hung with 'boats' — plywood half-barrels suspended from the ceiling to dissipate some of the natural echo. We used it later when we recorded more of 'Like This,' and a large portion of R.E.M.’s 'Out of Time' record, for which I was a session player, was cut in there as well.) The control room in B was tight quarters, but we’d toured Europe by train, so it was comparatively luxurious by those standards — plus there were no midnight-hour inebriated football hooligans to contend with, just our own complex egos.

"Butler: ‘Love is for Lovers’ had jumped to the head of the line as a potential cut one/side one tune almost at first hearing. Tons of pre-production work had gone into the song — things like adding lots of anticipated beats, which gave the song a constant forward thrust, and adding that skip beat in the drum part at the end of every four bars. The lyrics were very good, and cutting them down was not an option, so we used a trick I had come up when arranging my own hyper-wordy songs for the Waitresses: adding a ‘teaser’ chorus or bridge, which lets the tune get back to another verse instead of going directly to a bridge or chorus as required in the standard pop song format (the ‘do you believe this’ repeats between the first and second verses). The overall structure was methodically tweaked as well, with a restart for the third verse, the guitar breakdown and subsequent rev-up to the finish (a structure shamelessly pinched from the Rolling Stones).'

"I’m sure we recorded the basic track (guitar, bass and drums) many times, as was and is our wont. Nowadays, with digital technology, you can do editing a lot more easily with a mouse and a pointer; in 1982, it involved cutting and splicing two-inch recording tape with a surgeon’s hand and, well, an engineer’s ear (ours was the talented Michael Frondelli). We did a fair amount of that in our recording career, but we didn’t have the kind of time to lavish on something like that during these sessions. So we did version after version, attempting to keep the energy up and the performance in a constant state of improvement, which is not always easy after several hours.

"Butler: 'The hardest part of recording the song was coming up with overdub parts to flesh out the arrangement. Some days the ideas flowed quite nicely. Others, it was like pulling teeth … or rather, like a wrenching psycho-drama of finding a new identity while confronting collective and individual insecurities. With a big chunk of passive resistance and control-freak-versus-control-freak conflicts tossed in.'

"Will Rigby: 'I remember throwing a metal garbage can around in the echo room for quite a while to get that perfect sound at the beginning of the guitar solo, which Frondelli then processed so much that it’s impossible to tell what it is making the noise. One of my few keyboard performances on a dB’s record is the single-note ‘telegraph’ part on the choruses.'

"Gene spent the better part of a day working on the gut-wrenching guitar solo’s tone, well-spent in retrospect but nerve-wracking at the time, as we thought we saw time slipping away before us.

"I finally finished the lyrics the night before I cut the vocals, including the 'no one’s a lover/just ‘cause they love it' line, still probably one of my favorites in my catalog.

"We mixed the song, and everyone was dancing giddily around the control room, patting one another on the back and referring to it as our 'grandchildren’s college education fund.' Then we submitted it to the powers-that-be at Bearsville.

"Butler: 'Todd Rundgren had emerged as head of Bearsville’s A & R department. He was not pleased with some of the tunes, and though every record he ever made (up until then, and including ‘Bat Out of Hell’ by Meat Loaf) had been remixed (sometimes without his knowledge), he was not a fan of the first mixes that Mike Frondelli and I had submitted.'

"Rather than allow Butler and Frondelli to remix, which would have probably been the righteous thing to do, Bearsville canned them from the project and had Gene Holder and Mark McKenna, the studio’s chief engineer, do mixes from Rundgren’s directives, which ended up on the released album. I know it was rotten treatment of Chris Butler, who’d put so much energy into making the record come to life, but that’s how it got handled, unfortunately.

"Butler: 'I can’t think of a more miserable position to be in than to be stuck between a rock band and a record company. But if you are a record producer (and even if you are a major fan of the band you’re working with), that’s just the way it is — that’s The Gig. Hopefully, the band are your pals, and they are counting on you to listen to them and to preserve their integrity, but the record company is the entity which actually hires you, and they would like to hear a hit (or three), and for you to finish the project on time and within (or better still) under budget.'

"About six weeks before 'Like This' was to hit the streets, our big American debut album faced a new and horrendous snag: Bearsville’s distribution by Warner Bros. had come to an end. (The situation was far worse for Randy VanWarmer, whose song 'Just When I Needed You Most' was cruising up the charts, only to be sideswiped by unavailability just when he needed it most.) In true-to-form dB’s lack-of-business-acumen fashion, we considered trying to take the record away from Albert’s clutches, but decided that it would 'take too long' or 'cost too much,' and that 'we’d already told so many people it was coming out' — among other random and idiotic reasons.

"So, as the music business punch line goes, 'Like This' wasn’t released, it escaped. And then it disappeared. Without the muscle of Warner behind us, the band would find itself doing hastily arranged signings where there were no copies of the record. Promo copies went out to journalists across the country who discovered the new Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes album inside, due to a screw-up at the pressing plant. The dB’s history is riddled with those kind of bad breaks, many our own doing but just as many at the hands of record companies who were having their own bad days that became ours.

"There was a single of 'Love is for Lovers,' but you couldn’t get it without special ordering. Then you couldn’t get it at all. It made no impact on radio, and the song did not receive a video treatment for the fledgling MTV. ('Amplifier' did have one, directed by Walter Williams of “Mr. Bill” fame; but the song’s chipper take on suicide and the literal images throughout the video did not pass muster with the tastemakers at MTV.)

"I’ve always hoped someone would come along and say 'Gee, that ‘Love is for Lovers’ would be a natural for [insert singer’s name/movie soundtrack/TV show theme/ad for beer etc. here],' but it hasn’t happened. Yet. Fortunately, 'Like This' got reissued in 2006 and is available again. I keep my hopes up because I still believe the song is a good one. Apparently, I’m not the only one.

"Butler: 'Listening to the song now some 25 years later, there is much to be proud of. It swings and struts, and it’s as pretty damn pure a piece of pop craft as was ever recorded. Yeah, I wince when I hear the dated handclaps, and what’s with the BOOM! before the giddy-up/surf guitar solo? But then I hear the high guitar feedback note at the outro, and remember that this came from a late punch from an earlier take — a happy accident that was kept in — and ya just gotta smile. Because the song works.'"

* From the Vault:

Treble Kickers (friends and I) performed Pavement songs at Run For Cover @ The Warehouse Nextdoor in Washington, D.C. May 24, 2003. Finally, some video:

-- Gold Soundz

-- Two States

-- Box Elder

* "There will be a time when loud-mouthed, incompetent people seem to be getting the best of you. When that happens, you only have to be patient and wait for them to self destruct. It never fails." -- Richard Rybolt


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12:31 PM  

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